Tattooing is an art form and mode of expression common to many Indigenous cultures worldwide. In these communities, tattoos are commonly employed as powerful markers of achievement, group allegiances, and both social and spiritual status.

However, little is known about when or why the practice began. This is especially the case in places like the southwestern United States, where no tattoos have been identified on preserved human remains and there are no ancient written accounts of the practice.

Instead, archaeologists have relied on visual depictions in ancient artwork and the identification of tattoo implements to trace the origins of tattooing in the region.

“Tattooing by prehistoric people in the Southwest is not talked about much because there has not ever been any direct evidence to substantiate it,” said lead author Andrew Gillreath-Brown, a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at Washington State University.

“This tattoo tool provides us information about past Southwestern culture we did not know before.”

SEM micrograph of the cactus spine tips from the Turkey Pen tattoo tool at 100x magnification; the top spine shows post-break rounding; the bottom spine exhibits rounding; both spines indicate use-wear. Image credit: Gillreath-Brown et al, doi: 10.1016/j.jasrep.2019.02.015.

SEM micrograph of the cactus spine tips from the Turkey Pen tattoo tool at 100x magnification; the top spine shows post-break rounding; the bottom spine exhibits rounding; both spines indicate use-wear. Image credit: Gillreath-Brown et al, doi: 10.1016/j.jasrep.2019.02.015.

Previously, bundled and hafted, or handled, cactus spine tattoo tools from Arizona and New Mexico provided the best archaeological examples of early tattoo implements from the Southwest. The earliest of these have been dated to between 1100-1280 CE.

So when the scientists came across a very similar looking implement from the Turkey Pen site in Utah that is 1,000 years older, they knew they had found something special.

The tool consists of a 3.5 inch (8.9 cm) wooden skunkbush sumac handle bound at the end with split yucca leaves and holding two parallel cactus spines, stained black at their tips.

“The residue staining from tattoo pigments on the tip was what immediately piqued my interest as being possibly a tattoo tool,” Gillreath-Brown said.

The researchers also analyzed the tips with a scanning electron microscope, X-ray florescence and energy dispersive ray spectroscopy.

They saw the crystalline structure of pigment and determined it likely contained carbon, a common element in body painting and tattooing.

“The find has a great significance for understanding how people managed relationships and how status may have been marked on people in the past during a time when population densities were increasing in the Southwest,” Gillreath-Brown said.

The discovery is described in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

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Andrew Gillreath-Brown et al. Redefining the age of tattooing in western North America: A 2000-year-old artifact from Utah. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, published online February 28, 2019; doi: 10.1016/j.jasrep.2019.02.015